Years ago, at a bar in Tallahassee, I met this guy. He was really vague about what he did for work. Secretive, as if he were in the CIA.

Later, I learned his real occupation: He was a political opposition researcher. Secretive, for sure.

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Certainly the Internet allows for the speedy transmission of information. But traditionally, opposition research is as well defended as that guy I met in Tallahassee.

Just ask Tim Baker, a Republican political strategist for Data Targeting in Florida, who specializes in opposition research. He calls the release of any documents “highly unusual.”

“Research is one of the more closely guarded things on a campaign,” Baker says. “A lot of researchers go through different avenues to obstruct the fact that research is even being done.”

Opposition research reports typically cover the issue positions as well every public vote, statement and appearance a candidate has made. They detail business and personal dealings. The book on Romney, for instance, includes information on his positions on social, economic and domestic issues as well as foreign policy. His business record and “flip-flops” are also covered.

Certainly this research is used by campaigns. Nuggets are leaked to friendly reporters here and there. The books outline weaknesses that might make great attack ads. But they also reveal some of the motivations of the campaign gathering the research.

Campaigns keep the research overview to themselves, because some of the information might only be used as a last resort.

Release of the Romney book surprised Baker because it reflects so poorly on the campaign of McCain, who of course has endorsed Romney.

“It strikes me as some sort of vendetta,” says Baker, who isn’t involved in the presidential race. “There’s a desperate struggle going on right now to damage Romney.”

Baker points to Democrats in 2008 when he says a hard-fought primary can be a good thing in terms of preparing candidates for a general election.

“Certainly Obama improved over the course of that and Clinton even improved.”

But many of the GOP attacks carry traditionally Democratic themes, Baker notes. That includes the “documentary” made by Gingrich supporters about Romney’s time at private equity firm Bain Capital. That piece of work has liberal filmmaker Michael Moore wondering whether someone stole some of his crew, Moore told New York Times media columnist David Carr.

With attack ads that basically attack capitalism and release of documents previously considered sacrosanct, Democrats are faring well in this scorched-earth race for the GOP nomination.

Sandra Fish teaches journalism at the University of Colorado and has reported on politics in Iowa, Florida and Colorado. Follow her on Twitter at @fishnette